Last Night's Television: Spanish flu – the forgotten fallen, BBC4
Thursday 06 August 2009
It's Manchester in 1918 and there's trouble outside t'mill. A little girl has just dropped dead, her earlobes and lips a fetching shade of cyan and Dr James Niven has a bad feeling about it. "This may signify the beginning of a new outbreak," he says, before asking that Manchester be closed until further notice. "I want all public assemblies curtailed, I want the Sunday schools closed, I want the trams stopped and the mills shut down," he tells his boss, who takes the view that this is all alarmist nonsense and what they really need to be worried about is an epidemic of VD when the boys get back from the trenches.
It will not have escaped your notice that Spanish Flu – the Forgotten Fallen has been lucky in its timing. Had swine flu been as grave as was initially feared it would probably have been shelved as insensitive. And had swine flu not been around at all it would have received only a fraction of the pre-publicity it has been given. As it is it found itself transmitted at precisely the point – a lull after an early scare – when its account of official complacency and viral ravage was perfectly designed to work on your anxieties.
Bill Paterson played Dr Niven, fretful and frustrated as his warnings are ignored. Public assemblies can't be curtailed because the war has just ended and all people want to do is have a party. The mill owners have no intention of stopping the looms and even the Sunday-school teachers are being stubborn – if children are going to die then they need to take care of their eternal salvation. Before long, the hospital corridors are crammed with stretchers and Northern clichés have taken on a cutting edge. "Your John'd be late to his own funeral," says the mother of Dr Niven's secretary. "Will you stop saying that Mam," Peggy snaps back, knowing that the demobilisation camps are kettles of disease.
The drama wasn't all downbeat – the Forgotten Fallen bit of the title giving the key signature for a section, which was a kind of medical Big Push. The dirge-like choirs on the soundtrack gave way to optimistically bustling woodwinds as Dr Niven and his assistant Mr Dunks mobilised for battle. "This is your war... if you want to fight it," Niven told Dunks, who'd been fretting earlier about the white feathers his flat feet had earned him. Unfortunately, it was a war they could only fight by limiting casualties. In the end, around 3,500 people died in Manchester, which actually counted as a kind of victory given the fatality rates in other large cities – and a global death total of some 70 million. Spanish Flu – the Forgotten Fallen wasn't really a drama, it was a historical chronicle. But it was a good one – and the title card at the end, reminding you that falling rates of infection may only represent the trough before the wave that overwhelms you – couldn't have been more timely.
Silverville turned out to more drama than documentary, featuring a storyline and character revelation that Mike Leigh would have been proud of. I confess that I thought it would be a curiosity at best, an observational series about Lovat Fields, a Milton Keynes retirement village reserved for the over 55s, a development that looks like a cross between an open prison and a landlocked Saga cruise. This week's episode began with Ken and Jan preparing for a move to Lovat Fields, a change of address brought about by Ken's recent stroke, which had left him with speech and mobility problems. Then it was revealed that Jan had no intention of moving with her husband and that Ken was profoundly distressed by this development. Jan couldn't have had a clue just how bad she would look, though the film-makers can be accused of nothing but supplying her with enough rope. "How often will you be able to visit Ken?" asked an offscreen voice. "Well, as often as I want to really," Jan replied blithely. "I'm going to try and keep it to twice a week... so that Ken learns to be independent... there's a method in my madness because I think Ken will really benefit from it." Ken didn't think so, and he had worse shocks in store. The final scene featured Jan chattering cheerfully about her newly revived social life. "Obviously, someday there might be somebody," she said to Ken cheerfully, "...but I'll still love you." Ken looked as if he'd taken a frying pan in the face and his eyes slowly filled. I watched with my children, who groaned when it began, assuming – as many children do – that nothing of significance ever happens to anyone over 30. They were on the edge of their seats halfway through and ready to march on Milton Keynes by the time the credits rolled. Life doesn't begin at 50, but it sure as hell doesn't stop there either.
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